In labor negotiations with city employees, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett "demanded concessions that went beyond those mandated" by Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining law
AFSCME on Saturday, April 7th, 2012 in a letter to members
AFSCME says Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett demanded union concessions beyond those in Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining law
We know why labor unions stand against Republican Gov. Scott Walker and in favor of recalling him: the 2011 changes that nearly eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public employees.
But why are they so mad at Democrat Tom Barrett, who opposed those limits? The Milwaukee mayor is one of four Democratic candidates vying to face Walker in the June 5, 2012 election. The primary is May 8.
AFSCME Wisconsin, which represents thousands of government workers in Milwaukee and Wisconsin, says it’s because Tom Barrett out-did Walker in putting the hammer down on unions.
Specifically, the Milwaukee arm of AFSCME claims Barrett publicly was ripping the union limits while quietly using the prospect of the law to try to get unusually deep concessions to balance the city budget.
The group embedded its charge in an April 7, 2012 apology of sorts for highlighting a scathing Internet video that claimed Barrett supported Walker’s limits on bargaining. We rated that claim False.
The AFSCME statement on the video mostly served to reiterate labor concerns over Barrett’s relationship with labor, and underscore its support for Barrett rival Kathleen Falk.
"Unfortunately, Tom Barrett's record is very different (than Falk’s)," the statement said. "When our members who work for the city of Milwaukee tried to negotiate with him as Walker was ramming through Act 10, Barrett wasn't interested in working with us."
Then came the union’s final punch: "Instead, he demanded concessions that went far beyond those mandated by Act 10."
Act 10 prohibits government employers from bargaining with unions over benefit levels, working conditions and wage increases over the rate of inflation. It takes effect as existing union contracts expire, allowing communities to unilaterally collect more from workers for health insurance, pensions and more. For unions without an active contract, it took effect right away.
Did Barrett really oppose the bargaining changes and then use them to cut even deeper into union power?
That question gets to the heart of why many unions, some of which sat out the 2010 election in which Walker defeated Barrett, are opposed to the Milwaukee mayor.
The answer to the first part is relatively straightforward. The mayor clearly spoke against such extensive limits on bargaining, we reported earlier, though he also strongly backed Walker’s move to get public employees to pay more for their benefits.
The second question turns on what exactly Act 10 "mandated." How you view it partly depends on which side of the bargaining table you sit on.
Let’s rewind the clock.
The sweeping law passed in March 2011 amid chaos at the Capitol but did not go into effect until June 2011 because of court challenges.
Many unions, including AFSCME, sought to extend contracts before Act 10 took effect -- opening talks in Milwaukee, for example, even before the measure came to a vote. And AFSCME, again like many other unions, was willing to accept health and pension concessions in order to get a contract that still offered a host of protections -- and pushed off the day when they would be subject to the full force of Act 10.
But the negotiations in Milwaukee collapsed, leaving Barrett free -- after AFSCME’s contract expired on Dec. 31, 2011 -- to put as much of Act 10 into effect as he wanted.
More on that later.
To learn how the union backs up its claim that Barrett "demanded concessions that went far beyond those mandated by Act 10," we turned to Richard Abelson, the veteran head of AFSCME District Council 48, which represents many city employees.
Abelson sent us the opening proposal from the city of Milwaukee negotiators to the union on Feb. 24, 2011.
The city’s offer included proposals to get a 4.9 percent wage cut (essentially equal to the pension contribution Walker’s bill envisioned), and increase workers’ share of health insurance premiums to 12 percent. Abelson acknowledged those were right out of the Act 10 playbook.
But he contended that Barrett’s proposal to eliminate contractual work rules spelling out overtime provisions, hours of work and duty disability pay went "far beyond" the mandates of Act 10.
He also said the city’s side rejected a union proposal for raises of 50 percent and 75 percent of the inflation rate in 2013 and 2014.
"Even Walker’s bill allowed that," Abelson said.
Let’s take a closer look.
Act 10 did mandate higher pension contributions from workers at the City of Milwaukee, other municipalities and school districts, and in state government. And it mandated that 12 percent health-care share for state employees and some local employees, though Milwaukee was not included because it’s not part of the state health plan.
At the bargaining table, Barrett went beyond those two specific fiscal concessions.
But so did Act 10.
The measure mandated an end to collective bargaining on health care, pensions, overtime and other work rules. In other words, it allowed employers such as the City of Milwaukee to turn all those items into management rights.
So the city could unilaterally decide to trim payments and benefits that once were agreed to in negotiated contracts.
The greater control over overtime and work rules sought by Barrett’s team was exactly what Act 10 envisioned -- Walker said it would help local governments and school districts offset state aid cuts.
But let’s return to the statement, that Barrett "demanded concessions that went beyond those mandated."
First, Barrett didn’t "demand" concessions. The city’s proposal was just that, a proposal. It was the starting point in the inevitable give-and-take of negotiations.
To be sure, the city offer was a jolt: No pay raise, new salary deductions for pension and health care, and elimination of overtime and workweek protections that had been part of the contracts for decades. The city wanted a one-year extension; the union wanted two or three years.
Barrett aides say the city saw a massive pension payment coming in 2013, and did not want to get locked into a pay raise while trying to absorb major state aid cuts that Walker’s budget delivered.
Two longtime observers of labor negotiations told us the AFSCME claim is only accurate in a technical sense.
"It is true that Act 10 did not ‘mandate’ changes in work rules," noted Dan Thompson, executive director, League of Wisconsin Municipalities. "But it allowed (Barrett) to change them" without bargaining.
"It’s worse in a way," from labor’s standpoint, Thompson said.
Bottom line: Barrett could have gone even further if he was using Act 10 as a model. In the spirit of Act 10, he could have refused to bargain on all topics except base wages, and ignored all past labor contract language on work rules.
"In some very narrow sense, the union is right, but the statement ignores the big picture" of Act 10’s effect, said Peter Davis, Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission general counsel.
Barrett also points out that his team left many of the AFSCME contract’s points in place -- on sick leave for rank-and-file workers, health insurance at retirement, vacations and other issues -- and the union was willing to agree to several of Barrett’s changes if a raise accompanied them.
There’s an interesting coda to all this.
In the end, AFSCME’s old contract expired Dec. 31, 2011 with no extension, leaving the city free to have its way on dozens of workplace issues formerly subject to bargaining.
Barrett used what Walker calls the "tools" to get major health care savings for his budget. (He never got the increased pension contribution after a city attorney legal opinion cast doubt on its legality.)
But Barrett and the Common Council dug even deeper, eliminating a host of bargained provisions of years past.
Here’s the list and estimated savings for 2012 totalling almost $1 million:
New limits on overtime ($195,000); changes to duty disability payments ($140,000); less make-up pay for days lost to inclement weather ($125,975); lower auto mileage reimbursement ($41,139); and smaller sick leave payouts for management ($120,000).
The city went further on other benefits, eliminating these: clothing and cleaning allowances ($187,114), paid lunches ($84,844), glove and tool allowances ($54,020), educational bonuses ($22,404) and additional money paid to employees released to conduct union business ($14,509).
The city also cut annual sick leave earnings from 15 to 12 days, reduced call-in pay from three hours to two, but said the savings were unpredictable.
Some things got better: Shift differential pay increased in some cases, and funeral leave expanded for some.
AFSCME said that in labor negotiations, Barrett "demanded concessions that went beyond those mandated" by Walker’s bill severely curtailing collective bargaining.
Barrett didn’t "demand" concessions.
There’s a kernel of truth in that Act 10 didn’t mandate fiscal concessions beyond pension and health insurance, but in reality it dictated that employers could make many of the kinds of changes Barrett proposed in the AFSCME talks.
We rate the union’s claim Mostly False.
(You can comment on this item on the Journal Sentinel's main website by clicking here.)